From royalty, to revolt, to revolution, the culotte has experienced a past like no other garment. Originally worn by the aristocracy, culottes broke from their class-bound history and instead became a symbol of female resistance.
The word ‘culot’ is based in the brash Latin translation of ‘cul’, meaning backside. Others claim that this evolved as a word to mean ‘the lower half of’, in this case referring to the body. Either way, the basic ‘culot’ was worn by Early Modern French aristocracy. They consisted of fashionable silk knee-breeches and were usually fastened at the knee with buttons, a strap or a buckle. The garment also made an appearance in the military ensemble of various armies during the 18th century wars that tore across Europe and beyond. However, their 18th century use is best remembered with the sans-culottes, a revolutionary lower-class force that were the ‘mob’ behind the French Revolution. Meaning ‘withouttrousers’, the sans-culottes wore pantaloons instead to advocate for the poor, recognising the culottes as a symbol of hierarchy and affluence.
THE FEMININE TURN
As we drift into the mid to late 19th century, the culotte was increasingly less associated with strictly men. The Victorian era witnessed European women beginning to wear long split skirts when horseback riding, a monumental controversy considering the fact that a flash of the ankle was deemed inappropriate. Freedoms gradually flourished with the development of the split skirt, allowing women more physical agility when performing their everyday roles, such gardening and cleaning. Although this was progressive, with a retrospective lens, we can unpick the underlying sexism that exists here, requiring women to secretly dress in culottes to carry out only their restrictive gendered roles. As discussed in our Trouser Suit series, Amelia Bloomer was an iconic female figure who frequently took risks with her fashion for the great cause of women rights. Associated with the bloomer trouser, Amelia regularly sported a culotte ensemble for reasons that transcend mere ease and physical freedom, instead increasingly questioning gender paradigms that limited women under the male sense of superiority. This ideals were taken up in 1911 by the Parisian, Paul Poiret, who designed the harem pant and the jupe-culotte, both of which were progressive for women in that they allowed them to wear skirt-like pants, irrespective of the possible masculine appearance of them. This provoked a moral panic, with the press receiving a hefty swathe of criticism, but it was most definitely a victory for feminist fashion. People were merely scared of the power that this could give to women.
Despite lingering concerns, the 1920s saw the culottes take on a new lease of life. Inspired by Asian clothing, the silk pyjama pant emerged, enabling women to fashionably lounge. These designs were sported by women in the spotlight, such as Hollywood actress Evelyn Brent and Coco Chanel. Nevertheless, it is still argued that the female culotte did not establish itself as a true fashion statement until 1931, when Elsa Schiaparelli designed the divided skirt that was worn by herself and by Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon. In doing so, Schiaparelli revolutionised the garment, shocking both the fashion and sporting worlds. The continuation of the 20th century saw females wearing culottes more openly, with both those in the limelight and ordinary women collectively using fashion as a means to equate the genders and provide women with more physical freedom, as well as the liberty of choice.
FASHION IN WAR
In the 1940s, a decade plagued with conflict and rationing, a new culotte-based outfit was created. This design consisted of two pieces that could be mixed and matched, including culottes. This creation, popular in France, meant that simple pieces could be alternated to create a multitude of outfits. Whilst against the grain of wartime struggles and rationing, extraordinary women chose to defy such limits by creating 2-piece outfits consisting of a culotte pant (which could be mixed and matched). Looking so similar to a skirt, these French women drew little attention to themselves but, psychologically, were able to defy wartime limitations, ranging from shortages to oppressive standards and gendered paradigms. Not allowing deprivation and discrimination to take their toll, the culotte was the perfect form of resistance as it allowed women to move more freely and maintain their own personal freedom in such damaging times. The culotte has since grown to be an accessible and highly acceptable form of clothing, seen from runways to royalty, with Kate Middleton regularly sporting the look. This garment’s history should not be forgotten, as it is truly representative of a bridge towards female equality, allowing women physical freedom whilst pushing against the strict requirements of a skirt.
Our next articles - 'Culottes: The Garment that Transcends Time' and 'The Recent History of Culottes' - will explore the culottes of the later 20th century in more detail.